Tag Archives: queer

ART: Sophia Wallace and “Modern Dandy”

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The proliferation of queer fashion blogs and editorials in the last year is astounding (my new favorite being Queerture), and no doubt deserves a post of itself. Into this fray, Sophia Wallace’s photographs in a series called “Modern Dandy” are just one of a number of projects that consider the dandy as critical figure. Wallace’s artist’s statement reads:

The dandy—conventionally defined as a strikingly attractive man whose dress is immaculate and manor is dignified—has been around since the late 18th century. Often misunderstood as superficial, the dandy is rather a space of creative possibility where men and women can perform a persona in ways that reach far beyond the narrow binary constructs of masculine and feminine. Indeed artists like Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, H.H Monro and less recognized women such as the American painter Romaine Brookes and her cohorts found Dandyism to be a liberatory space not only for appearance but more importantly, for a life of independence that did not necessarily adhere to a deterministic heterosexual model of marriage and children. Examples of modern dandies include Andy Warhol, Quentin Crisp, Grace Jones. My many years focusing on gender, race and constructions of beauty led me to dandyism as a radical position for art making and social critique. Indeed, dandyism’s subversive aesthetic of beauty disrupts normative gender in fascinating ways. Beauty is defined in almost all contexts as the domain of femininity which is commonly understood as frivolous, weak and passive. The dandy is neither traditionally feminine or masculine. Rather, the dandy is an aestheticized androgyny available to men, women and transgender individuals. Herein lies it’s power and it’s danger.

Now, I love me a dandy –friends who know me in real life can testify!– but something that requires some consideration (and femme theory) are the parameters of androgyny, or genderqueer, especially practically — which items of clothing signal androgyny, through what ensembles (or assemblages), on which bodies?

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From the Archives: “My Hair Trauma” (1998)

A photograph of two Asian women with big bouffants and miniskirts, probably from the 1960s.

Amsterdam, 1960s via http://www.reisenews-online.de via theswingingsixties.tumblr.com

We received a request for a piece I wrote over ten years ago, from my time in the “olden days” of what we oldsters once called “web journaling.” It’s hard to read some of my old writing without cringing (as I mention in the comments below, I am so on-trend for ’90s nostalgia), and this piece is no exception (I would probably ask more, and different, questions now). Still, the realization that our own hair is political is something of a rite of passage, right?

Earlier today I stood in front of the bathroom cabinet mirror, sewing scissors in hand. I was having hair trauma. (I have hair trauma a lot.) Taking inventory, I glanced down. Sitting on the back of the toilet were the following instruments (of varying degrees) of follicle torture: Royal Crown hair gel. Pantene hair spray. A tortoise shell clip. Ponytail ties. Bobby pins. A year-old plastic container of “Apple Green” Manic Panic hair dye. A blow-dryer/curler. Clippers. Bleach conditioner. A comb.

Standing in my underwear I imagined the possibilities: braids, french twists, a bun, two hair buns (a la anime girlies), the “wet” look, shaved, curled, ponytail, pompadour, mohawk, bihawk, streaks, “Glamour Shots” big hair, gang-girl big hair, buzz cut, mullet, beehive, haute couture. This is the essence of my hair trauma. I got dizzy thinking about it and left well enough alone.

In a phone interview over three years ago I was asked, “What do you think of Asian women who bleach or dye their hair; do you think they’re trying to be white?”

That day my hair was chin-length, a faded green. I said, “No.”

What does it mean to be “assimilated”? I’m suspicious of, say, fork, no chopsticks. A ridiculous concept with far too much currency; I get it all the time. In the zero-sum struggle between a fluid “Western” modernity and a static native “authenticity”, what confuses is the space between the either/or, the “difference they keep on measuring with inadequate sticks for their own morbid purpose.”

But wait: “they” is a fluid concept.

My interviewer was a middle-aged, heterosexual Asian American man with his fingers pushed deep in the white avant-garde tradition. Did I ever mention how much I hate the white avant-garde tradition? He revels in the modernist circumstance: the Western bourgeois and usually masculine subject imagines himself artist and rebel, bemoaning/celebrating his alienation while seeking to impose some more basic “truth.”

The hegemony of white racial bias works both ways: first, to assert an overdetermined standard of Eurocentric beauty and second, to warn against racial inversions or artistry that defy the dominant “white” logic of racial coding and stylization. That is, while we might acknowledge that the first instills a sense of “inferior” worth in people of color, what do we make about the second? I mean, is hair as art, as style, as invention, banned to the Asiatically-follicled? It is already suggested by dominant “common sense” that anything we do is hopelessly derivative: we only mimic whiteness. This is the smug arrogance underlying the issue -the accusation, the assumption– of assimilation: we would do anything to be a poor copy of the white wo/man. Do you buy this? Are you, too, suspicious of “unnatural” Asian hair: permed, dyed, bleached? But if I assert the position that all hair-styles are physically and socially constructed, even “plain” Asian hair, how do we then imagine hair as politics?

Who defines what’s “natural”? Does our hair have history?

What does my hair say about my power? How does the way you “read” my hair articulate yours?

Asian/American women’s hair already functions as a fetish object in the colonial Western imaginary, a racial signifier for the “silky” “seductive” “Orient.” Our hair, when “natural,” is semiotically commodified, a signal that screams “this is exotic/erotic.” As figments of the European imperial imagination, Suzie Wong, Madame Butterfly, and Miss Saigon are uniformly racially sexualized and sexually racialized by flowing cascades of long, black shiny hair. Is this “natural” hair? Or is hair always already socially-constructed to be “read” a certain way in relation to historical colonial discourse? Is this “natural” hair politically preferable? “purer,” as my interviewer implicitly suggests?

According to a certain culturally nationalist narrative: yes. But it gets complicated once the fetishist acts up and says, yes, I like you better when you are natural/native/other.

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when the white folk agree?

When I was a sophomore in college a group calling themselves the Asian Male Underground embarked upon a mission. That is, they graffiti-ed women’s bathrooms on campus with propaganda: “Have you tried an Asian male lover?” “Sisters support your Asian brothers: stop dating white men!” I was and am so over Asian American straight male recuperation of their penises in the name of cultural “pride.” A strong man makes a strong community? I took a red marker from my bag and scribbled, “No, but I have tried an Asian sister. Does that count?”

Do I need to be saved?

And because the initial (hair) question is gender-specific, I have to ask: did the interviewer seek to escape scrutiny? I mean, are Asian American men who cut or style their hair participating in an “unnatural” visual economy pre-set by (wannabe) white standards? Why is men’s “loyalty” to racial community not likewise questioned in a parallel scenario? Are Asian American women posed as “culturally weaker,” more susceptible to the seductive lure of whiteness? More inclined to “sell-out”?

I imagine the whispering, the first sign is the hair.

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when both (heterosexual) Asian/American men and white folk agree?

It bears mentioning that the interviewer assumed I was “straight.”

So does bleaching our hair necessarily connote a desire to be white?

When I was eighteen my roommate Alicia took a pair of sewing scissors and a stinging, foamy blue mixture of “speed bleach” to my scalp. By the end of the night what was left of my hair was a deep shade of pink, cut close to the skin.

All through high school I had “natural” long black hair. A white man approached me in the park one day, told me he must have been an “Oriental” man in a former life because he loves the food, the culture, and the women. At the mall a black Marine looked me up and down and informed me he had just returned from the Philippines, and could he have my phone number?

I was fifteen. They start on us young.

In Helen Lee’s short film Sally’s Beauty Spot our heroine (Sally) cuts off her long black hair in response to her white boyfriend’s exoticizing gaze. It seems relevant then, that cultural critic Rey Chow notes that the “activity of watching is linked by projection to physical nakedness.” It is an act of violence that “pierces the other” in order to name or own the object-slash-objectified being watched.

I cut off all my hair and damaged it with all kinds of fucked-up chemicals because I was sick of the orientalist gaze being directed at/on me. Having “unnatural” hair was supposed to be an oppositional aesthetic tactic, a “fuck you” to the White Man, not an attempt to be the White Woman. I wanted to be an aggressive spectacle, a bodily denial of the “passive” stereotype, the anti-lotus blossom, because when I was young it was always just a simple matter of “fighting” stereotypes by becoming its opposite. I thought to embrace my difference, to expound upon it, to expand its breadth.

I said to myself, “Now I will be what they least expected. I will be scary, I will be other than the stereotype of the model minority, the passive Asian female.”

In some circles a shorn skull is a sure sign of dyke-ness. I marked myself accordingly.

But whatever we mean for our style choices to signify politically, none of it means that we’ll necessarily be read that way by “illiterate” audiences. For the next four years, my bright green locks were an “excuse” for some whites (male and female) to continue to eroticize my difference without indulging the “obvious” orientalist signifiers. That is, because they did not necessarily adhere to the “traditional” homology of racial fetishes -the long black hair, for one- it was “okay” to exoticize me because I was not a “traditional” Asian woman: “North American,” punk, etc. As a result, the p-rock hair only emphasized a (superficially) different but (structurally) similar re-fetishization of my female Asian body as doubly “exotic:” that is, my “other-ness” factor increased exponentially in relation to the “unconventionality” of being a “bad” Asian/American woman.

Then there were those who took no pains to hide it. There is in fact a punk song that wants to rape me. I am the “bad” Asian female who needs to be disciplined with a little white dick. It excites him/you to think that some violence can surely be anticipated in the act of subduing the black-belt “Saigon Siren” he/you would like to imagine me to be. He/you wants to “do” me: I am unsure if this means fuck me or kill me, or both.

How much do I “own” my self-(re)presentation? How do I account for being “misread”?

Sally’s boyfriend said: “You look different.” But he liked her hair “still, shiny and black.”

I don’t deny that some of us grow up damaged by dominant aesthetics and white mythologies. There are plenty of stories circulated among ourselves about how we wanted hair that curled, blonde hair, red hair, whatever. We are impressed with an sexual ideal; that is, we are taught to believe that thin, blonde, tall, big-chested, blue-eyed, and rosy-cheeked are checkpoints in an inventory of what is beautiful. Sometimes this results in a painful process of racial erasure or self-hatred; sometimes we adapt to these myths in unexpected ways: I for one –convinced of her desirability– grew up wanting to fuck the Barbie look-a-like, not to be her.

So: I refuse to be pathologically defined by an imaginary lack of “good hair.”

My own bleached locks -when I had them– hardly suggested “white” hair. I took no pains to disguise my black roots and the burnt effect of the peroxide was not a “normal” or white-looking hue. I doubt my hair masked the shape of my eyes, my nose, my face. Nor was it meant to. If possible, it became more obvious: who expects Asian features beneath a ragged shock of green hair? About Malcolm X’s former incarnation as a slick zoot-suiter with a red conk, black gay academic Kobena Mercer writes, “Far from an attempted simulation of whiteness I think [] [hair] dye [was] used as a stylized means of defying the ‘natural’ color codes of conventionality in order to highlight artificiality and hence exaggerate a sense of difference.”

My (racial) difference was exaggerated as a result of my “unnaturally” colored locks, but it was used against my chosen oppositional body politic.

And of course, in punk rock “unnatural” hair is aesthetically conventional for whites and is anyway fast becoming a popular “look” found in clubs, music videos, and Urban Outfitters, so it loses its strategic political meaning as “anti-Establishment” rebellion.

But why mourn the passing of punk aesthetic-as-politics? Purists (most often white, heterosexual, and male) argue that it diffuses their own “difference:” but it’s a difference they so fiercely covet because it is their only difference and for the sake of claiming a marginality, it remains important (to the purists) that they maintain that imaginary line. I mean, aren’t white punks always complaining about “blue hair” discrimination, as if a jar of Manic Panic magically re-positioned their own social status on some level of “equally” marginal footing with people of color? And where does that leave the rest of us who cannot wash our colors away?

What does it mean to dye your hair blue?

Angela Davis critiques the fashion-as-politics retro-perspective that conflates the Afro with black liberation: the nostalgia, she writes, is misplaced. Her hair was not the whole of her politics.

In the context of “radical” racialized aesthetics, the psychological/pathological values assigned to hair-styles labeled either “natural” (therefore indicating racial pride) and “white-identified” (“she must hate herself because she’s got a perm”) are based on a reversal of Eurocentric binary logics. Does reversal=liberation?

Here the inverted logic restages the liberal Western racial discourse about “natives:” that is, in the liberal version of multiculturalism, they like us best when we’re “authentic.”

How many white people have clucked their tongues at my seeming inauthenticity? Too many.

The white avant-garde likes to think it can break boundaries and transcend the restrictions of that bogeyman called Society. The avant-garde “borrows” liberally from everywhere, plundering our cultural drawers, and pretends it makes something new, but not just new: something more truthful.

In the 1960 Hollywood film The World of Suzie Wong the white American artist is horrified when his model/love interest Suzie, a street prostitute, shows up in his Hong Kong apartment proudly wearing a brand new “Western-style” dress. He calls her a whore and, violently shaking her like he might a child, tears the dress off her maligned body. In the following sequence he gives her an “authentic” Chinese wedding dress and is enchanted by the resulting vision in (virginal) white: restored to a more desirable state of “purity” by the white artist, she is suddenly demure, docile, “properly” Chinese. It is significant that while red is the color of happiness and marriage in Chinese symbology, white is the color of death and mourning.

What kind of death does Suzie Wong die?

What does it mean to be an Asian woman? Or more, what does it take for me to be seen as an Asian woman?

I’ve twice been mistaken for “Amerasian,” or half-Vietnamese, half-white: once by a Vietnamese American girl in a women’s studies undergrad class, once by a white Vietnam vet at a screening of From Hollywood to Hanoi at the Roxie.

And in Little Saigon I was a novelty, “exotic” with wallet-chain wrapped around my neck, trapping dirt & sweat, truncated green hair, even though Little Saigon is as “American,” as inauthentic as I am: a city council-designated site for reimagining “home,” we are nothing like we might have been, elsewhere. I can’t preserve what’s been irreversibly destroyed, even as possibility, in the process of war, migration, decolonization. And still I manage to elude Authenticity, big-A intact, or more, it eludes me. And so I wear my history of trauma differently, what of it–?

It’s still my history too.

Where is my community? Whose identity politics do I follow?

For Christmas I got my mom my hair. That is, I dyed my shoulder-length green hair black. She loved it. It’s been forever. I had been “different” from my mother for too long.

For no good reason I got myself my hair. That is, I took a pair of scissors and cut myself bangs just like Anna May Wong’s, the original Dragon Lady. I aspire to similar great heights, only without Hollywood to script my untimely demise I am intent upon succeeding/subverting.

Do I look Asian enough for you now?

Jaded is a monthly caucus of Asian Pacific queers “+ friends.” This time around I am playing the femme, foregoing jeans and boots for blood-red vinyl and black metallic. Around one a.m. we are positioned somewhere near the stage, our feet numb from sitting on speakers. Hello Kitty flits ghost-like across painted brick walls, her mouth appearing and disappearing according to some silent language she mimes. Across a sea of bodies elevated dancers snake their arms toward industrial piping and disco ball. My also femme-ed friend wrinkles her nose, pointing out one of the club kids in a black bikini and brown velvet pants. Disparaging: “Why is she wearing a blonde wig? That’s kinda fucked-up.”

I shrug because I’ve heard it before. Because she is a queen of the ironic performative herself I am a little cynical about her stance. I promise myself to later show her this really cool piece I’m writing on hair.

Recently I ran into a friend of mine in a bookstore. She is looking for a book on Elvis because she is getting a haircut and is considering a pompadour. Only three inches at the longest, she (a Korean dyke) runs her fingers through her black hair. She tells me, “Some of my friends have been bugging me about it ’cause they say it’s getting too femme-y.” I am forced to consider what my hair, no longer shorn or dyed, relays to other Q&A women.

Is it just a simple matter of becoming the antithesis of the stereotype? Which stereotypes do you choose to not be? Do you affirm the stereotypes even as you (imagine that you) defy them?

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; what do we do when even our friends agree?

We internalize the imperative of surveillance. That is, we police even ourselves, speak our need to be recognizable to the stranger’s gaze, transform our identifications and desires into advertising.

And can you tell I was a refugee by my hair?

In a ‘zine interview conducted between two Asian American women in punk, they make free with the generalizations about how “typical” Asian American women are less daring, less wild in their style choices. This is because (they say) they’re assimilated, unlike the Japanese exchange students who populate the East Village in funky fashions.

They congratulate themselves for being “different” from the “typical” Asian American woman because they are punk rock.

Are there different kinds of “unnatural” hair? I mean, it is qualitatively different to dye your Asian hair pink rather than perming it with Miss Clairol? Why? In either situation, it might be said that you are re-constructing your hair to conform to a certain subcultural standard of what “fits” the respective standards of beauty. If you are going to stake a claim of a “bonus” difference accentuated by punk rock, it’s relevant to ask: what is the qualitative difference when punk and the so-called “mainstream” are both dominated by whiteness, demographically, discursively and follicle-ly?

Question one: Please answer the above in complete sentences or annotated diagrams.

Again: how do we perpetuate the stereotypes we (think we) oppose? Whom are we different from or whom do we presume to be different from?

Does “breaking the silence” of stereotype liberate some and (continue to) depreciate others?

Question two is multiple-choice.
1) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re being radical.
2) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re self-hating.

Or, 3) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, your politics might not be readily available via a visual evaluation or are not otherwise related to the shape/size/color of your hair at all.

Which hair politic do you follow?

I hate the white avant-garde.

I hate my hair trauma, but not nearly as much.

These days I am thinking of chopping off most of my hair and bleaching it white. Again.

I never said my hair would start a revolution.

Can you really grasp my political agenda, my psychological state of mind, from my style choices?

Question three: Please illustrate the approximate percentage of political choice, psychological conditioning, and visual artistry involved in hair-styling with 1) a pie chart 2) a geometric-algebraic formula 3) a ten-page expository essay.

You will be graded on an arbitrary scale according to how well you explore a) the philosophical mandate of the avant-garde tradition b) “serious” Marxist objections to the performative body politic of feminisms and queer theories and c) your own hair history.

Any questions?

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GENDER/QUEER: “Butch/Femme Crip”

Crip Wheels, a blog composed by a black queer “wheelchair dancer,” features thoughtful observations on disability and dance, among other things. This brilliant essay, “Butch/Femme Crip,” addresses the tangle of queer sexuality and gender presentation (including but not exclusive to the way clothes interact) with corporeal bodies in general, and disabled bodies in particular. The importance here lies in the uneven distribution of gender and sexuality to certain forms of physical presence — to muscles, to movements — and in her challenge to those qualities problematically assigned as distinct to those embodiments. For all that the following excerpt is quite long, it is nonetheless just a taste of the intellectually provocative writing about moving the body here.

When we got into it, the last two women with whom I almost had sexual relationships told me that they read me as butch. Theoretically speaking, it is a little perverse to argue from the point of view of how someone reads me rather than saying I explicitly identify as butch (or not). But I choose to do so because this particular approach shows how disability complicates what we think we know about possible identities.

Behind that word for them was my fascination with my own body, with its muscles, and with its physical strengths. That’s something a lot of queer women notice about me, and it is the source of many jokes among my friends. I say queer women, because the straight ones in my life are usually too shy to comment on it. But also behind that word for the two women in question was my active enjoyment of my physicality. I love the power of my body; I flex my muscles, I pat them in public (sorry peeps, I really do; I love them). Yeah, it’s funny. Yeah, it’s sexy. But for the purposes of this conversation, I wonder about that understanding.

To say that it is “butch” to somehow forefront muscularity and physicality strikes me as an interesting insight into how we approach understanding conventional femininity. It is to say that somehow conventional femininity does not explicitly prioritize the tendons, sinews, muscles, and bones of its female bodies. But how can you have breasts, vaginas, tummies, and asses without the underlying structure of your body? Is it to say that somehow conventional femininity is only the visible surface of the body. Is it to say that femme is the performance of the hyper surface — the explicit recognition and enhancement of aspects of conventional femininity? And that butch is somehow the recognition and acceptance of the deeper muscular structures of the body?

If this is what it means to be butch, then, I suppose, that even in my 5 inch heels, even in my see-through mesh dresses, I am butch. But I also think that disability skews — I almost wrote queers; I so wanted to write queers — disability skews that particular assessment of these aspects of my butchness.

Scenes from my life.

You see me on the street. I’m wearing a low cut tank top. Your attention is caught by my ripped back muscles. I turn towards you, flex my arms, and push away. You think:

  1. Oh, what an athlete. Wow! Sexy.
  2. It’s a pity that she’s in that chair. Such a strong upper body must compensate for her legs.
  3. She should cover herself up a bit.
  4. Ugh, and you look in other direction.

You see me in the cafe. I’m wearing the same low cut tank top. I admire my arms. Sip my coffee. Look at my arms again, stroke them, and smile a long smile at you. You

  1. Smile back and ask if I need help or anything?
  2. Panic. Fuck. Did she just … flirt with me? Shit.
  3. Pretend you didn’t see, turn, and leave.
  4. Smile and come right over.

You see me in the audience at a dance performance. I’m wearing a mesh dress, pointy heeled boots, and something in between to make it decent. Every muscle in my arms and back is visible; the curve of my breasts rises out of the baggy over-dress; my body gleams through the sheen of the blue mesh. Wizard pushes me into the space. You

  1. Wonder if I feel sad watching all those beautiful dancers, given that I can’t move.
  2. Wonder if I am for real. Disabled people don’t dress or look like THAT.
  3. Wonder about what Wizard is doing with a woman like me.
  4. Wonder what it would be like to fuck me.

OK. So, I am imagining the viewer’s responses. But these are moments from my life of last week. No, you don’t get to ask what happened next. And in each vignette, I really think that the question of whether you see me as butch or femme doesn’t really happen unless you integrate or get past the disability question. And what about my choices and my perspectives?

My muscles are as they are because I use a chair and because I dance. Because they are a direct consequence of my disabled life, I would argue that you would have to think twice before you interpret them and my enjoyment of them as part of a butch identity.

My decision to wear impractical shoes is as much a consequence of me not having to walk in them as it is a decision to participate in a particular understanding of femininity. But what do you see? A sad attempt to look normal? A pair of high heels on a woman? Or something so over the top that it slides into the devotee/fetish view of disabled female sexuality? Note that this is a risk that is only present for disabled women. It’s a long way for nondisableds to go through femme to fetish. Merely presenting certain aspects of traditional femme for a queer disabled woman puts her at risk of becoming a usually straight object of the devotee community.

Would you recognize it if I made a pass at you? To see it, you would have to acknowledge an awful lot. You would have to understand that disabled people have sexuality, that it can be a queer sexuality, and that I am looking at YOU.

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GENDER/QUEER: “Dressed To Kill, Fight to Win”

Dean Spade is a genius activist lawyer and legal scholar. (For instance, he is the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a non-profit law collective that provides free legal services to transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming people who are low-income and/or people of color. And just look at this photograph! In other words: CRUSH-WORTHY.)

In his essay “Dressed To Kill, Fight To Win,” published in the first issue of feminist genderqueer collaborative arts zine LTTR, Spade challenges the notion that undergoing or adopting certain bodily practices preclude a person from a “rational” or radical political position.

Against discourses of the authentic, real, or natural, he challenges the notion that persons who change their appearances, their bodies –with commodities, with clothes, with surgeries– are necessarily duped or self-hating; he further argues that there is no necessary or singular correlation between one’s aesthetic practices and political commitments. (In the most familiar “dilemma” of this sort, can a feminist wear heels? In another, does a femme have to? And yet another, can a feminist wear hijab? Answers: Yes, no, yes. You get the drift.)

Although Spade writes about trans surgeries in particular, his analytic cautions are useful for thinking through other bodily practices in general and –yes, this again– the unreliable stories these tell about our psychic interiors or political convictions.

Does it matter what I’m wearing, what I look like, how I wear my body? All our lives, we receive conflicting commands to ignore appearances and not judge books by covers, and to work incessantly to conform our appearances to rigid norms. The result, I think, is that as we come to reject and unlearn the ways we’ve been taught to view our bodies (fatphobia, racism, sexism, gender rigidity, consumerism, ableism) we become rightfully suspicious of appearance norms and fashions and seek to form resistant practices. But what should those resistant practices be?

I think sometimes being anti-fashion leads to a false notion that we can be in bodies that aren’t modified, and that any intentional modification or decoration of your body is politically undesirable because it somehow buys into the pitfalls of reliance on appearances. This critique is true, lots of times what we mean to be resistant aesthetic practices become new regulatory regimes. Certain aspects of activist, queer, punk fashions have fallen victim to hierarchies of coolness that in the end revolve around judging people based on what they own, how their bodies are shaped, how they occupy a narrow gender category, etc. Perhaps it is inevitable that the systems in which we are so embroiled, which shape our very existence, should rear parts of their ugly heads even in our attempts at resistance. But does this mean we should give up resistant aesthetics? Isn’t all activism imperfect, constantly under revision, and isn’t that why we continue doing it? In my view, there is no “outside”-none of us can stand fully outside capitalism, racism, sexism and see what is going on. Instead we stand within. and are constituted by these practices and forces, and we form our resistance there, always having to struggle against forces within ourselves, correcting our blindspots, learning from one another. So of course, our aesthetic resistance should do the same.

More importantly, when we appeal to some notion of an unmodified or undecorated body, we participate in the adoption of a false neutrality. We pretend, in those moments, that there is a natural body or fashion, a way of dressing or wearing yourself that is not a product of culture. Norms always masquerade as non-choices, and when we suggest that for example, resisting sexism means everyone should look androgynous, or resisting racism means no one should modify the texture of their hair, we foreclose people’s abilities to expose the workings of fucked up systems on their bodies as they see fit.

(Read more at LTTR.)

I love this last paragraph, in which Spade is critical of perspectives that assign to bodies “natural” qualities or “real” characteristics that are proper to them, which assumes a fiction of “whole” or “neutral” body as a disciplinary and normative ideal. He instead asks us to consider how such a stance assumes a “superior” perspective that erases or dismisses other modes of explanation or engagement with these bodily practices.

(For example, Kathleen Zane writes in her essay on certain cosmetic surgeries: “Understanding how, for non-privileged classes of women, forms of personal power or ways to manipulate disadvantageous social circumstances can be creatively engaged, we may confront the power and privilege that accrue from our espousal of our particular oppositional strategies.” From “Reflections on a Yellow Eye: Asian I (\Eye/)Cons and Cosmetic Surgery,” in Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, edited by Ella Shohat.)

Instead of condemning cosmetic or trans surgeries, straightened hair, hijab or high heels as “unnatural,” we would be better served as feminist theorists of culture to ask: Which kinds of bodily practices are normalized as “appropriate” to feminine persons, and to masculine persons, and how? What values (of race, nation, gender, economic status) do these practices normalize? What ideologies are embedded in these often-literal inscriptions upon differentiated bodies? How have these discourses and practices changed in historically and culturally specific ways?

Spade ends his essay with this utopian note about the look of radical possibility:

So a part of this fashioning we’re doing needs to be about diversifying the set of aesthetic practices we’re open to seeing, and promoting a possibility of us all looking very very different from one another while we fight together for a new world.

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GENDER/QUEER: “The oldest queer girl story in the book”

“Clothes are more than a little fraught for me,” writes Krista Benson in the preface to a post that addresses some provocative, pertinent absences in fashionable discourses in new media (or what might cringingly be called the blogosphere). Bringing up two of the most troubling problems for the study of style as “self-expression,” so often understood as a substantive good in and of itself, Benson continues:

They always have been. Unlike my academic-fashionista kin, I have not always loved clothes. I wasn’t someone who was really clever with pairings or daring with how I dressed. I just … wore clothes. The history of my discomfort with fashion is bifold and it’s the oldest queer girl story in the book (or one of them, at least); it’s about gender presentation and body dysmorphia.

Her post points suggestively to a link between deviant bodies and sexual and gender anxieties that goes for the most part unremarked in fashion and style blogs, with some notable exceptions. (Fatshionista and lipstickeater, for instance, and some of the blogs I will be linking and excerpting in this series.) She notes that she often doesn’t understand how clothes are supposed to fit her body –let alone clothes for professional purposes– and explains further the trouble that gender makes:

Which leads to the second point of discomfort. As much as I love the aforementioned blogs, they’re all variations upon femininity and femme-ness. Which is great, but it’s not necessarily me. Occasionally, sure, I’m interested in some kind of queered femininity, often pairing something softer with some kick-ass boots or something, but in an average day, I’m not comfortable being that girly. I’m not masculine-presenting, exactly, but I am uncomfortable with compulsory femininity and, in a lot of ways, I’m not feminine.

This is, of course, complicated by being an out, queer woman who is partnered with a woman. Even in the notoriously liberal higher education field, assumptions are laid upon both of us in terms of presentation and expectations.

It is absolutely true that most fashion blogs –including those blogs dedicated to “professionals/academics,” and this one at times– tend to paint a rosy portrait of a happy relation to clothes. And this bothers me too, because there are so many times I hate this thing Fashion for its complicities, both mundane and avant-garde, with colonial racial classifications, predatory capital, class stratification and class slumming, able-bodiedness and rehabilitation imperatives, gender and sexual norms, biopolitical measures of health and beauty, militarism and imperial statecraft. (And as many times that I wish I could roll out everyday in my old punk rock uniform, which is partially nostalgia for sure.) And because I am also an “out, queer woman who is partnered with a woman,” and whose gender presentation does appear to be femme –however unresolved I may be with such a designation, especially since this presentation was a conscious, and certainly troublingly expedient, decision I made to “professionalize”– I want to echo Benson in the spirit of her questions.

So I wanted to start this series of scattered thoughts and excerpted selections on “queer feelings, gender presentations” with Krista Benson and her provocative musings on the problems of deviant bodies and gender and sexual anxieties. Especially because of the increasingly pervasive cultural authority of fashion and style bloggers –on both individual and industrial registers– it’s critical that ideological categories as well as corporeal configurations of race, gender, sexuality, et cetera, are subject to ongoing contestation at these sites. What other sartorial experiments and experiences demonstrate to us that such categories and configurations are not simple, singular, or self-evident? For whom is “self-expression” through clothes or style difficult, unavailable, or even undesirable? What other gender presentations, sexual identities, and embodied states can point us suggestively toward alternative ways of inhabiting our clothes and the uncertain stories they tell?

(Image from Queer Action Figures, 1994)

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RuPaul as Style Guru to Baby Drag Queens and Everyone Else

Tonight’s the Season 2 premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race (9pm on Logo TV or Logo Online)! Among reality contest shows about fashion, style, and beauty, this is my favorite. Hands down. Drag Race has the most diverse group of contestants – in race, gender, sexuality, and likely, class. Last season, three of my favorite contestants were from outside of the U.S.: Bebe Zahara Benet (Camaroon), Ongina (Philippines), and Nina Flowers (Puerto Rico). Also, one of the guest judges last season was Jenny Shimizu (who I adore even if she looked like she was on an Asian American literature panel at MLA)! The photo of Shimizu below (circa her Calvin Klein days) has little to do with this post but it’s there because: I. love. Jenny. Shimizu.

I’m looking forward to this season but I’m also a little nervous. The guest judges that have been announced for this season are Kathy Griffin, Cloris Leachman, and Debbie Reynolds. I can’t honestly say any of them excite me much. Another reason to be apprehensive about Season 2 is precisely because it’s Season 2. Reality shows are always best the first time around. In proceeding seasons, contestants seem too versed and too ready to manufacture drama in order to stand out as a “personality.” Ru seems to be hinting at this when she says:

The biggest change in this season is the contestants are actually a bit more – how can I put this? They’re more tenacious. In the first season, they were a bit more diplomatic because they were representing drag for the first time in a decade. This time around, though, the kids have seen the first show, they know what the prize is, and they know what’s at stake, so they have taken the gloves off.

Still, can’t wait to watch! If you missed Season 1, you can catch up online.

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In related news, RuPaul hates fashion people. She tells W Magazine why she has nothing to do with New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week: “I think the fashion people are so nasty and so pretentious.”

Also, she’s got a new book out called, Workin’ It! RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style (Harper Collins 2010). Both the TV show and the book firmly position Ru within the increasingly familiar trope of the lifestyle specialist/style guru. In Drag Race, she plays (wonderfully!) the matriarch/mentor to baby drag queens (Nina Flowers even calls Ru, “mother,” during their private lunch together).

With Workin’ It! (totally judging said book by its cover here), Ru expands her domain of influence, to “provide helpful and provocative tips on fashion, beauty, style, and confidence for girls and boys, straight and gay – and everyone in between!” The neoliberal makeover logic at work in the book is, by now a pretty trite one. As Brenda Weber explains the logic in her essay, “Makeover as Takeover” – see also her new book, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity (Duke UP 2009):

A new and improved appearance will not only make the woman more congruent with larger codes of beauty, but will increase her confidence and thus her personal power. In order to gain access to this form of power, however, makeover subjects (often called “victims,” “targets,” “marks”) must submit fully to style authorities . . .

RuPaul’s embracing of her role as neoliberal style guru is evident in the title and description of the book. In articulating style in the language of democracy (here. the Declaration of Independence), RuPaul’s book connects the consumption of resources like fashion, beauty, and style commodities to political acts. Workin’ It! suggests that “girls and boys, straight and gay – and everyone in between” who wants to be free (and who doesn’t want to be free?) needs her style expertise. This is a central tenet of neoliberalism’s lifestyle politics: consumer power is political power.

What is different about RuPaul as style guru is the difference of race, gender, and sexuality. And while this is a significant difference, it isn’t a radical one. Instead, the book (maybe more than the TV show) is a function of what Lisa Duggan has called “the new homonormativity” of neoliberal sexual politics:

[I]t is a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them . . . [through] a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.

I love RuPaul. I think she looks amazing and will never be outclassed by any of the contestants on her show. And basically, I can get behind her general message. But her book nonetheless illustrates the power and pervasiveness of neoliberalism as this era’s cultural logic.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS

Queer Feelings, Gender Presentations

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting links and excerpts from other blogs on questions of queer and non-normative gender presentations. I’ve mentioned before some of my own concerns about the unreliable stories clothes tell, and in recent sweeps of the interwebs, I’ve stumbled across some usefully provocative ruminations and truly engaging conversations about bodies and clothes from queer quarters that I’d like to share. (This, as I contemplate a new haircut I can make into a pompadour.)

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHION 2.0, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN